UNESCO Historical Sites

Himeji-jo, Shirakawa-go & Gokayama, Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome), Gusuku Sites & Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, and Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine

Mark Brazil

In one sense, all of Japan's World Heritage Sites could be classified as historical. However, seven of them are more directly cultural in their significance and exist only because of past Shinto or Buddhist religious beliefs and traditions, such as those in Kyoto and Nara, and four others were designated because of their Natural World Heritage Site status.

The remaining five sites are broadly historical in nature, and although they contribute very significantly to the cultural environment of modern Japan through their historical significance, they were less fundamental to the development of Japan's deeper national culture or religion as were the other cultural sites.

They are, nevertheless of great importance and of great interest. These five are: Himeji-jo (Himeji Castle) (1993), Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995), Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996), Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (2000), and Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007).

Furthermore, the first three of these should be considered in the 'must-see' category for anyone on an extended visit to Japan; Himeji Castle for its inspirational architecture, Hiroshima for its expos of the true horrors of nuclear war, and Shirakawa-go and Gokayama for opening a wonderful window onto past life in a remote rural area of Japan.

Himeji Castle, Hyogo Prefecture.
The soaring roofs of Himeji Castle, Hyogo Prefecture, and its shining white walls earn it the nick-name White Egret Castle. Architecturally it is commonly contrasted with Matsumoto Castle, which is nick-named the Black Crow Castle.

Himeji-jo (1993)

Japanese castles are not equivalent to the great stone defensive edifices of medieval Europe with massive donjons and encircling stonewalls; they were instead impressive seats of power with small donjons with refined aesthetic appeal.

Himeji-jo (Himeji Castle) in Hyogo Prefecture dates back to the early 17th century and is considered to be one of the finest surviving examples of its kind. This seemingly soaring masterpiece is typically dubbed the White Egret Castle (Shirasagi-jo) for its graceful appearance like an egret taking flight.

Himeji Castle's advanced (for the period) protective devices and elegant appearance combined form with function in a great architectural masterpiece. Of wooden construction with white plastered earthen walls and with heavy tiled roofs its appearance is iconically distinctive of the long feudal period of Japan (which continued until 1868).

Himeji Castle sits within concentric moats and walls, and today within extensive grounds that, in its heyday would have contained barracks, stabling, and residences for the lord of the castle's samurai. Despite the national drive following the Meiji Restoration, to destroy the visible symbols of the power of the feudal shogun period, fortunately Himeji-jo was saved, preserved and subsequently protected by law.

Shirakawa-go in winter.
Snow blankets the village of Shirakawa-go, which nestles against the flanks of the mountains. Until last century this was an extremely remote and difficult place to access.

Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)

Even today, the mountains of the Japan Alps, despite the tunnels and highways, present a tremendous barrier to transport between the Pacific and Sea of Japan coasts of Honshu. Even a century ago, this mountainous region, with its narrow winding river valleys, was remote and isolated, cut off from the rest of Japan for long periods and particularly so during winter when snow depths were to eave height and beyond.

Recent road construction and the far milder winters of late, with far less snow fall, have made these valleys far more accessible, but nestled within them are villages, such as Shirakawa-go and Gokayama that epitomize life in isolation in historical Japan.

The villages here were dependent on their local subsistence products, buckwheat, millet, and rice from their own tiny fields, fish from their own streams and ponds, and vegetables from their own plots. A stay in a minshuku in one of the villages today is still rewarded with cuisine that is almost entirely local.

The village industries included the production of raw silk thread by rearing silk worms, which in turn required the cultivation of mulberry trees for their leaves, and the production of paper (using mulberry bark), while today the production of chillies is a local feature.

Survival in these valleys required protection from phenomenally heavy snows and so was born a style of architecture that survives nowhere else today in Japan. The farmhouses were very large, particularly so given today's standards, with high roof beams and steeply pitched roofs that were covered not with cedar shingles or tiles, but with reed thatch to a great thickness.

This style of construction, termed Gassho-zukkuri, is said to resemble hands joined together in prayer. The walls were not insulated and the windows were made of paper making these cold buildings in winter. Snow piling up around was prevented from crushing in the windows and walls by the provision of seasonal screens leaning against the eaves. In recent mild winters these have been attractively decorative, but barely functional.

The traditional houses, with their independent store rooms, stand on small individual plots of open farmland with tiny fields on a narrow plateau flanked by mountains rising in all directions. The surviving 117 houses are scattered in several villages along the Sho River valley, an area that repays exploration at any time of year, but a visit in winter gives the best feel for how isolated this area once was.

Shirakawa-go in autumn.
Large thatched roofed farm houses at Shirakawa-go stand in tiny plots of land, most of it dedicated to growing millet, rice or vegetable crops.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)

No WHS in Japan, or perhaps elsewhere in the world, can rival the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) in its emotional impact. This is a site from which many emerge only to seek a quite place to sit alone and contemplate alone, before re-entering the suddenly insignificant-seeming rush of daily life. It is an important experience that none should miss, but one that is difficult to repeat.

The fate of Hiroshima, as the target for one of the only two atomic bombs used so far in anger, and the first city to be destroyed by such means on 6 August 1945, is well-known, but its inclusion as a WHS is unusual, though worthy. The dome, and part of the building that supported it, originally the three storey brick built Hiroshima Commercial Exhibition Hall rising to 2 m, was the only structure still standing near the hypocentre after the explosion, and this stark symbol of overwhelming destructive force has been preserved as it was immediately following the bombing.

The protection of the site beside the Motoyasu River, the associated Peace Memorial Park (laid out 1950-1964), memorial, and the Peace Memorial Museum (opened in 1955), all serve to express a desire for peace, and for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The site is the focus for the annual Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, which commemorates the events, destruction and loss of life of 6 August 1945.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Hiroshima.
The alignment of the sheltering, enfolding arch of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial with the exposed remains of the Commercial Exhibition Hall invites contemplation on the meaning of peace and security.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Genbaku Dome.
The Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima, is the world's most significant symbol of endurance.

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (2000)

In contrast to modernity of the last site, the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu WHS celebrates 500 years of history in the Ryukyu Islands (that chain of islands between Kyushu and Taiwan) from the 12th to the 17th centuries.

Castle ruins (Gusuku), and sacred sites celebrating ancestor and nature worship, are all that remain of the centuries long history of this kingdom, once a cultural and economic crossroads between southeastern parts of Asia, the continent to the west, and the Korean and Japanese territories to the north.

The Ryukyu kingdom became united in 1429, it was conquered by Japan in 1609, but Ryukyuan monarchy was maintained as the region's administration until it was abolished in 1879 and made a prefecture (Okinawa) under the post Meiji Restoration administration.

Much of what had survived in the southern part of Okinawa Island was damaged or destroyed during the Second World War, leaving the remnants of the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu less tangible than most other WHS.

The single most famous element is Shuri-jo, the castle built in the latter half of the 14th century as the palace and administrative centre for the kings of unified Ryukyu, and subsequently designated as a National Treasure by the Japanese government. Unfortunately, it was almost entirely destroyed by bombing in late May (25th to 27th) 1945, and reconstructed in 1992. The current incarnation of the castle is, nevertheless, an imposing, impressive and realistic representation of Gusuku architecture.

Shuri Castle Dragon, Naha, Okinawa.
Dragon detail of Shuri Castle, Naha, Okinawa.

Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)

Perhaps the least known of Japan's WHS is one situated among the low mountains of the far southwest of Honshu Island, in Shimane Prefecture. The Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape WHS preserves archaeological remains from the 16th to the 20th centuries and expresses the significance of the mines, their smelting and refining sites, the trade routes through the mountains and the ports (Tomogaura, Okidomari, and Yunotsu) from which the silver ore was shipped.

The economic development of Japan during the 16th and 17th centuries owed much of its dynamism to the substantial contribution of the mines in this area and their output of silver and gold. The peak of mining output here was in the early decades of the 17th century, after which it went into gradual decline. With the decline in the mining industry much of the area has become naturally reforested serving to preserve the site almost intact.

The silver production at the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine reached its peak in the 1620's-1640's and started to decline gradually after that, although even in the last 17th century it was still producing as much as 1,000-2,000 kg a year, though that petered out and by the middle of the 19th century little more than 100 kg a year was being produced.

Japan's diversity of World Heritage Sites is impressive, yet much remains of world value that has yet to be designated. Of tremendous cultural significance in Japan, for example, are the classic strolling gardens of Kenroku-en, Kairaku-en and Koraku-en, yet none of these are currently listed among Japan's WHS.

If the argument is that they are too specific, or too small, then one must wonder about the inclusion of Himeji-jo. And if Himeji-jo is worthy of inclusion (which surely it is), then so too is Matsumoto-jo. Perhaps even the historical areas of Kanazawa, including its gold works, its sake 'breweries', and its fabulous garden could be include as one site - only the future will tell.

Shuri Castle, Naha, Okinawa.
Shuri Castle, Naha, Okinawa.

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Text + images by Mark Brazil

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